Donald Trump’s summit with Vladimir Putin was less that than a “getting to know you” session. Nothing was signed or formally approved, although Trump appeared a bit dwarfed by the Russian leader. But, besides that which, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, the meeting probably had some beneficial results.
The problem, however, is no one truly knows what was said between the two leaders. Certainly the outcry from some quarters in the United States was over the top. Dan Coats and the gatekeepers practically dismissed the conference as meaningless. Mike Pompeo came home and beat the war drums against Iran, and the befuddled Vice President Mike Pence gave a bellicose speech in one of the Baltic countries. For Trump, his message was being altered even before he returned to the United States.
Simply put, a great many among American’s foreign policy elites do not want an understanding with Russia but a perpetual conflict. To achieve this it is in their interest to depict Trump as a witting pet of Putin, firmly leashed. Republicans quickly tried to remove themselves from the affair before they even knew what had been spoken about. Trump was supposed to be on their leash, not Putin’s. In their view, the president of the United States is simply a child to be manipulated.
In fairness to the “guardians,” Trump made a mess out of the NATO meeting. Had he been shrewd he would have held his powder in Brussels and proceeded to Helsinki. Trump shot himself in the foot by tipping off his critics of what he wanted to do with Putin.
But outside of this error, his performance in Helsinki was marred chiefly by criticism of his intelligence forces. Why bring them up at all? By doing that he alerted the usual suspects and they prepared their defenses skillfully. When Trump arrived back, he was practically forced to recant his statement exonerating Russia and was treated by his own staff like he was a defendant in a show trial.
Unfortunately, Trump retracted the retractions, but only after damaging, once again, his credibility. The perception that Trump is not master of his foreign policy is dangerous. The men around him treat him with contempt. John Bolton, who appeared to be his only advisor who realized the dangers of showing up the commander in chief, urged a second Putin visit, this time in Washington. Whether or not the Russian will give him a mulligan is another matter.
But the danger is not so much nuclear war, but that other nations will take their cue from Trump by conducting separate foreign policies. Germany might tilt toward Moscow, if only for the reason that they think that Putin can deliver. Pompeo muddies the waters by behaving increasingly like H.L. McMasters. James “Maddog” Mattis doesn’t help by holding up American aircraft to Turkey. Diplomacy by manipulation could get the U.S. into a worse fix than belligerence.
A blunder can be corrected, but a “push me, pull you” approach is dangerous. Trump does have the right to conduct an alternative foreign policy. His so-called handlers, with the possible exception of Bolton, made things worse by humiliating their boss.